D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke looked incredulous during a recent budget hearing as City Administrator Carol B. Thompson explained the staff assigned to the once-small offices of the deputy mayor for economic development.

"Forty-four positions?" Clarke sighed. "It seems to me to be an awful, awful lot . . . . The idea of 44 people supporting {one} deputy mayor . . . . " His voiced trailed off. Thompson and the table full of officials promised to get Clarke a detailed description of what the city employees did.

It was only a moment in the opening days of what will be weeks of hearings on Mayor Marion Barry's proposed $2.8 billion budget for 1989. But Clarke's comment focused on what already has become the central issue in this year's budget debate:

How many people does it take to run the District government?

At stake for taxpayers is not only the shape and size of their city government, but also whether the D.C. Council will approve a proposal by Barry to raise income taxes by $248.8 million over the next five years to help pay for rising costs of providing city services.

The higher taxes would mean as little as $10 per year for some lower-income workers but more than $200 per year for the next five years for higher-income workers. Barry's proposed freeze of personal exemptions would affect disabled and elderly persons more because those groups are entitled to additional exemptions, officials said.

The mayor, who twice last year failed to get the council to go along with income tax increases, contends that increasing social service needs, higher public safety costs, court-ordered improvements in corrections and a less vigorous economy force him to seek higher taxes.

"We have made a concerted effort to keep {government} growth down," said Richard C. Siegel, Barry's budget director.

However, Clarke and council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), chairman of the finance and revenue committee, and other council members contend that Barry is presiding over a growing and increasingly costly bureaucracy that is inefficiently delivering city services.

"I just have general problems with the budget in terms of personnel," Clarke said during the hearing. Wilson has said that Barry has in effect used the city government as an employer of last resort.

In addition, some say, the mayor has assured labor peace within his administration by agreeing to three-year wage settlements and fringe benefit packages that have made the District government an attractive employer to many of the city's residents.

A recent study released by the council's budget office showed that the cost of paying salaries and fringe benefits for city workers has risen from $717.6 million in 1981 to $1.2 billion in 1988 -- an increase of 72 percent during a period of relatively low inflation.

The number of full-time funded government positions has risen from 30,974 in 1983, when the city had an annual operating budget of $1.8 billion, to 37,393 employees this year, with an annual operating budget of $2.7 billion.

And those figures do not include 5,000 full-time city workers who are counted in a separate category because their jobs are paid out of federal grants received by the District. For example, the proposed 1989 government employment would total 44,480 people next year and cost $3.3 billion, according to budget records.

"Personnel growth inflates not only the present budget proposal but significantly mortgages the future of the city," Clarke said, referring to the District's growing liability to provide pensions for its employees. The city has been stymied in its efforts to get the federal government, which was responsible for city employees before home rule, to increase its contributions to the pension fund.

Wilson, Clarke and other council members have urged Barry to pare the growth of the city government. Clarke has called on Barry to maintain funding for city employees in 1989 at the same rate as 1988 -- a move that he said would save $19.1 million and forestall any need for a tax increase this year.

"Those members of the council who do not want to support revenue enhancements ought to cut the education budget, ought to cut the public safety budget and ought to cut the human support budget," Barry said last week. "That's where most of the increases were. Over $30 million in the area of corrections."

Asked about Clarke's contention that the city is paying too much for rents, energy costs and other support services, Barry was unsympathetic. "If he wants to put people out of government buildings, he ought to cut out the money," Barry said. "We'll go cancel the lease and put the government people on the streets, if that's what Chairman Clarke wants to do."

The mayor's aides and the council agree that it is difficult to compare the District's government costs with other similarly sized jurisdictions. The District, as the nation's capital, is chartered by Congress and is empowered with state, county and city functions.

However, according to a new study by the International City Managers Association, considered a leading authority on local government spending, the District does have significantly higher numbers of employees and costs in key areas compared with cities of comparable size -- those with populations ranging from 500,000 to 1 million residents.

For example, the city of Baltimore is larger geographically and has about 750,000 residents, about 100,000 more than the District. A city managers association researcher pointed out that Baltimore has 2,992 people employed by its police department, compared with 4,392 in the District. Actual dollar spending was considered not comparable because of the lower cost of living in Baltimore.

According to the association study, cities of comparable size to the District have average annual expenditures of $97.6 million to fund police departments with 2,068 employes, of whom 443 are nonuniformed civilians.

The District police budget is $197 million -- double, or $100 million more than, average. The District employs 4,392 people in its police department, of whom 520 are civilians. The median starting pay for a police officer is $22,116, compared with $23,667 in the District.

Officials here contend that the District, as the nation's capital, is called upon to oversee hundreds of demonstrations, ranging from a few people to hundreds of thousands, and must provide unique services to the federal government and foreign interests, such as embassies.

A similar comparison of relative high costs for the District can be found in the fire department, where duties are similar to those in other urban regions.

According to the city managers association study, the average fire department in the District's class employs 1,139 firefighters, has 61 nonuniformed civilians and has an annual budget of $56.5 million.

The District Fire Department has 1,340 firefighters, 431 civilians and an annual budget of $87.6 million -- or $31 million more than the association average.